May 3, 2012 at 2:22 PM ET
J.C. Penney Company (JCP) seems positioned to benefit from conservative backlash over a same-sex couple in an advertisement, while snack maker Popchips is eating crow after an online ad featuring Ashton Kutcher triggered charges of racism. While both were controversial, the two companies' approaches and their execution were what made one soar and the other crash.
The first step to making a controversial ad work is to recognize that the material could be divisive. Penney certainly knew that featuring a same-sex couple and their family in its new Mother's Day catalog would upset social conservatives: Just two months ago, the retailer debuted ads with new spokeswoman Ellen DeGeneres. "One Million Moms," a subgroup of the conservative American Family Association, responded with a short-lived call to boycott Penney. The organization rescinded its boycott just a month later in the face of criticism that even included prominent right-wing figures such as Fox New's Bill O'Reilly.
"We want to be a store for all Americans," Penney's spokeswoman Kate Coultas said in an e-mailed statement. "Our May book honors women from diverse backgrounds."
By contrast, Popchips seemed caught off guard by the furor its web commercial generated. In the video, which is set up as an ad for a faux dating website, Kutcher plays a series of characters including "Raj," a brown-skinned, mustachioed Bollywood producer. Tech blogger Anil Dash was one of the first to blast the characterization as racist on his blog.
The outpouring of indignation on social media sites prompted Popchips to pull the ad and post an apology from founder and CEO Keith Belling on its website. "Our team worked hard to create a light-hearted parody featuring a variety of characters that was meant to provide a few laughs. we did not intend to offend anyone," he wrote.
The Popchips dating video was originally planned as part of a larger campaign includng other media like billboards. "At popchips we embrace... and appreciate all snackers, no matter their race or ethnicity," Lauren Bishop, a spokeswoman at Alison Brod PR, which was also involved in the Popchips campaign, said in an e-mailed statement. "The individual Bollywood character has been removed from the out-of-home billboard ads," she said. Ads featuring the other three characters Kutcher played will launch as planned on May 7.
Belling did not respond to a request for comment from msnbc.com, nor did ad agency Zambezi, which also was involved in the campaign.
Popchip's misstep is a particular problem for young companies, said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University. "One of the things is that new companies don't have the processes in place" to evaluate an ad's potential to offend, and in their eagerness to establish brand recognition, can overlook the potential for controversy.
"Marketers want to be different and to attract attention but in the process of doing that, they sometimes cross the line," Calkins said. He pointed to Groupon and Homeaway.com as two other examples of companies whose ads — in these cases, both Superbowl commercials — provoked negative responses that prompted corporate apologies.
Conversely, J.C. Penney's inclusion of a same-sex couple in its catalog was calculating. "I'm very confident that the people at J.C. Penney wanted to take a stand because they wanted to evolve that brand," Calkins said. The aging retailer recently overhauled everything from its stores to its pricing to attract younger shoppers.
"It needs to be contemporary and it needs to attract a new group of customers," Calkins said. Since One Million Moms already demonstrated it doesn't have the clout to hurt the brand, this controversy was a savvy, low-risk way to seem relevant.